Technology and the Stories We Tell

June 16, 2012

Michael —

I got up early (or what amounts to early for me, at present) to beat a deadline on some freelance work, and found myself gifted with that singularly early-morning mindset, asking the big questions. Being a tool-using ape, I elected to submit one into the search engine of record, and soon found myself with bleary eyes upon the blog post quoted above. Which got me thinking about slightly more focused Questions Of Unusual Size, such as: The preeminence of storytelling in the work that I’m doing at present (interaction design), What That Means For Civilization At Large, and similar. It also prompted to think about the seeming modern ascendancy of digital gaming in the context of the author’s thoughts on the linkage of tools and narratives.

Sure, digital games are perhaps often particularly married to invoking grand-ish narratives to legitimize their hold on our time (whereas hop-scotch, tic-tac-toe, scrabble, etc. are smugly content to remain primal in the abstract), but isn’t there something of the tool to them, as well?

Or, perhaps they are the tools we are using to tell stories about our conflicted relationship with the wider plethora of modern tools — many being of a digital genus — and it’s all a little bit much for me at this hour, still, I’m afraid.

What do you remarkable brandishers-of-tools think? Woven any good “micro-narratives” lately? ►

Eric —

There’s far too much evidence for animals using tools and, in rare cases, making tools, for this to be a useful way of defining humanness. But I do like Hayle’s categorization of humans as uniquely meaning-seeking animals. And David E. Nye’s line: “To improvise with tools or to tell stories requires the ability to imagine not just one outcome but several. To link technology and narrative does not yoke two disparate subjects; rather, it recalls an ancient relationship… A tool always implies at least one small story. There is a situation; something needs doing.” The ability and imagination to plan ahead is clearly at the heart of our civilizations.

Games and stories as tools makes me think of a recent article on Eurogamer: At What Point Does A Game Become A Toy?  Christian Donlan writes about From Dust, and the ways in which the underlying player-as-god mechanics of this environment-shaping game bring joy, perhaps despite its narrative and challenge-based shortcomings: “Beneath the missions, the narrative arc and the side challenges, though, it’s something else: a place to spend lazy, oddly hypnotic hours moving earth around and throwing lava into water, painting with mountain ranges, and watching grass spread across irrigated land.”

I was trying to paraphrase our conversation on Dear Esther to my mother-in-law the other day, and after doing my best to describe the game’s beautiful and imaginative world, she sensibly asked whether a player was likely to play the game for an hour or two just to lose oneself in the environment. I explained Dear Esther’s linearity as best I could, how it made you feel as if your only goal was to explore despite not giving you the openness required for real exploration. And how, for that reason, I couldn’t imagine anyone playing that game again, unless the goal was to experience the story again (because storytelling was the game’s only real intent).

So a game can obviously be a tool for storytelling (as with last year’s remarkable To the Moon), and a game can be a toy (Minecraft would seem to be the arch-example). Games appear to be increasingly pushing out at the extremities of these polarities. At both ends, there is an absence of the traditional challenge that ‘game’ seems to imply. And that this is why the but is it a game? question, as unuseful as it might be, has been popping up in the discourse so frequently.

I think it’s easy to suggest that most of the videogames of our childhoods were not strongly either of these things, occupied a middle ground between narrative and game-y-ness, but what of the traditional games that you refer to as highly-abstracted? Chess, go, mancala, backgammon—none of these have a pre-determined story to tell, nor do they easily lend themselves to emergent narrative creation. Or maybe they do; maybe these are the smallest of the micro-narratives. Books on chess strategy are, to paraphrase Michael Sacasas, compendiums of the meanings we’ve been able to draw out of our interactions with a technology—in this case, the abstract meanings of the chess set. ►

Nick  —

Reading both your thoughts on macro/micro-narratives, tools, technology, and toys reminded me of  Margaret Wertheim’s TED talk on hyperbolic geometry and crocheting coral reefs. If you skip through the particulars of her project and its relationship to mathematics (all of which is really interesting) she ends off advocating a project developed by her and her sister, The Institute for Figuring.

In describing some of the formal and theoretical breakthroughs they achieved during their work crocheting corals, she explains: “We have these technologies. We use them. But why? What’s at stake here, what does it matter? …One of the things that’s important here is that these things suggest the importance and value of embodied knowledge.” Plastic forms of play offer people an opportunity to engage with “the most abstract, high-powered, theoretical ideas. The kinds of ideas that normally you have to go to university departments to study …but you can do it through playing with material objects.”

This really resonated with me, I have always preferred play to work. Play for me is an unstructured, ad hoc, and exploratory way to relating to the world that is unconditionally removed from any sort of strategic learning or production (ie: play with this lump of clay until you can form it into an accurate representation of a human face vs. play with this clay). One of the reasons why I have always been drawn to play is that if you are really lost in it (if you play without constantly reminding yourself that you could or should be doing something “useful”) you will inevitably learn something, it just happens in and of itself. This is reflected in the kinds of games I enjoy most, the kinds that offer you access to unstructured play within or in the absence of an objective, narrative agenda – even if what I inevitably learn is that sitting at my computer uninterrupted for 14 hours is bad for my back and my marriage. And unfortunately it seems when I am the most engaged with a particularly playful aspect of any game that I really do confront Eric’s question “But is it a game?”

Games are inherently strategic in that you are given a set of tasks to accomplish in lieu of winning or finishing and as such are not open to play. I loved reading Donlan’s thoughts on Joy Ride Turbo, “it’s like playing with Matchbox cars on the carpet, running them up the drapes and under the kitchen table.” I did that a lot through grade school, adding my own ferocious engine sounds to animate the action, an activity an older friend once dismissively described as “spitting on the carpet.” It’s true that these kinds of experiences, which are fundamentally non-goal-oriented, do seem to defeat the task of  winning or finishing and as such may not qualify as games. That may provide some personal illumination for me as far as my painting practice goes, too. It’s a common cliché for painters to say that abandoning a work in-progress is ultimately the only way to say it’s finished. And if you’re going to be a professional painter you eventually need to finish one or two. At its best, painting is pure play. It strikes me that video games which are dialed to high in either rules/objectives, narrative/plot arc, or open-ended, god-complex sandboxes, are compromised in some way from being their most engaging.

Video games are a unique subset of games in general, It’s good to not forget that when comparing them to their non-digital companions. I think it’s short-sighted to suggest Chess is an abstract game. It is full of narrative.  As Ian Bogost points out in Persuasive Games: Puzzling the Sublime:  ”[Chess] clearly draws inspiration from military conflict, not only because of its historical lineage and mechanics of capture, but also thanks to its named, carved pieces. When a knight takes a pawn, it’s easy to relate the gesture to combat.”  I suppose all of that is easily buried beneath books of abstract, mathematical strategy, but it doesn’t really seem fair to ignore it either. I love the idea of micro-narratives, I’m a reckless postmodernist in this regard. What is interesting for me, though, is the degree to which narratives are prescriptive or self-generated. Games offer an abundance of opportunity for self-generated micro-narratives – in Chess there are sweeping defeats and laboured sieges, all with their own nuanced story. But you can’t decide to have a picnic in the park in Chess. You are entirely locked in combat. Video games are far more abundant in this regard, it seems. They really are something special.

Take World of Warcraft, my go to game for the last several years which is, like Chess, grounded in combat. Around this central theme/macro-narrative thrust, though,  is a huge world within which all forms of play are possible. I’m not going to go into details here, but have enjoyed many examples in WoW that depart from the games principle agenda: Ars Virtura, Everbloom, & the Romantic Picnic Basket  to name a few.

In many ways, that’s my principal defence of why video games are important. As examples of technology, as demonstrations of tool-using, story-telling Homo Sapiens, even at their most prescriptive and trite, they still fall under categories of play and as such invariably offer the opportunity to have a unique and unexpected experiences of the world  - abstract, digital, allegorical, symbolic, or otherwise. ►

One Comment

  1. Sally says:

    I find these discussions fascinating. Among your discourse you all raise many questions and one I’d like to discuss is whether or not narrative needs to have a conclusion? Even in small narratives -let’s say defined for this discussion as ‘a situation occurs and tools are found or developed to deal with the situation’ – can the situation be left undealt with? This seems to. E part of your Dear Esther discussion – do all games end in some form of resolution and if so is that wherein the satisfaction is derived?

Leave a Comment